Eastern Promises bears the trademark of a beautifully gritty, violent and psychological gangster drama set in London. East Promises is a compelling crime story about the Russian Mafia and the underworld movement of human trafficking, murder and the portrayal of a distant foreign culture that brings with it its ruthless heritage. Director David Cronenberg presents London in a whole new dark light where Russian mobsters silt throats with straight razors or wield linoleum knives. This is a gangster movie with no guns, simply knives, that gives Eastern Promises that rogue, shadowy atmospheric take on the genre.
A Russian teenager living in London dies during childbirth, leaving only her diary behind as the only clue to whom she was. Half Russian Midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) sets out to undercover the girls origins. The diary leads Anna to an extravagant Russian Trans-Siberia restaurant with an over welcoming old man Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). However this lavish restaurant and charming old man is all a front for the brutal Russian Mafia Vory Z Zakone brotherhood, with his oldest son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and driver Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen) as lead henchmen of the family.
Eastern Promises is not only a fantastic take on the gangster genre but a fascinating gateway into the Russian mafia and the Vory Z Zakone subculture of their tattoos. The film shows the secret language of the criminal underworld Vory tattoos “The Code of Thieves” and how these tattoos are not only symbols of who they are and what they’ve done, but also an indication of their rank within the criminal world. Stars on the shoulder declare the rank as a Thief and on the kneecaps stand for “I won’t fall to my knees before the authorities”. Daggers are the calling card of a man who kills for money. Cupolas on churches show the number of years the convicts have served in prison. Just like in the army, the military style epaulet on the shoulder represents the individuals’ high ranking profile in the Mafia. To these men the stars on the shoulders are not only a symbol that they will bow down to know man but a birthmark to the life they have chosen to take.
Just like his other films, Cronenberg's trademark of violence creeps its way into Eastern Promises with a graphically violent fight scene in a Turkish bath where two Chechen men are wielding linoleum knives. The choice to focus the primary weapon with knives rather than guns gives a more brutal and terrifying atmosphere. It’s a purely psychological feeling knowing that someone would have to be up close to kill you and the last person you would see is the stabber. In an interview Cronenberg said “We have no guns in this movie. There were no guns in the script. The choice of those curved knives we use in the steam bath was mine. They're not some kind of exotic Turkish knive, they're linoleum knives. I felt that these guys could walk around in the streets with these knives, and if they were ever caught, they could say 'we're linoleum cutters”.
David Cronenberg triumphs once again with gripping us with not only the violence but the culture of the criminal world just like in A History of Violence (2005). Showcasing Viggo Mortensen's once again, his prowess in a daring performance as the hitman driver and clean up guy Nikolai Luzhin goes far beyond as the heavily-tattooed cold hearted killer. Mortensen personal saw to it that the tattoos he wore were accurate for the character he played. He even studied Russian gangsters and their tattoos and even spending time with a Russian Mafia specialist. This unquestionable dedication resulted in Mortensen being nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor at the 80th Academy Awards, and rightfully so.